Achieving good outcomes is rightly the key barometer of success in government, but it is not everything – selflessly serving the public with honour and dedication matters too
Today I had the pleasure of attending a London Film Festival screening of “The Final Year”, a documentary by Greg Barker focusing on the last year of President Obama’s administration with a specific focus on foreign policy.
Regular readers will know that foreign policy is not my area of expertise, and rarely discussed on this blog. I only know enough to recognise that I am not qualified to pass blanket judgment on diplomatic and foreign policy issues which are fiendishly complex, rely on tremendously detailed knowledge of foreign cultures and regimes, and often require unbearably difficult decisions to be made in fraught circumstances with competing political demands, imperfect information and no crystal ball to see the future.
But it was difficult to watch the documentary and fail to conclude that the main protagonists – former Secretary of State John Kerry, United States ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes – discharged their duties diligently and with honour. One may not have agreed with all that these individuals did or the political outlook which guided their actions while serving in the Obama administration, but if so these were mere policy differences, not alleged deficiencies of character or behaviour.
It was also difficult to view the documentary and not feel a pang of shame at the composition and antics of the present administration, which even at its dubious best never seemed as functional as its predecessor, and which will certainly now struggle to attract talented, conscientious public servants given the scandals and negative publicity constantly roiling the White House.
Human beings have a tendency to impugn motives and presume character defects in people in public life based on our political differences with them. If we disagreed with the policies of Barack Obama then he also conveniently happened to be a dangerous socialist interloper who simply doesn’t love America the way that you or I love America. And if we disagreed with Mitt Romney or John McCain it was because they were heartless, selfish individuals devoid of charity or empathy, not due to the fact that these conservatives simply saw a different pathway to achieving a just and prosperous society.
This is not a new phenomenon. Republicans questioned the motives and character of Democrats in the Clinton administration; Democrats questioned the motives and character of Republicans in the Bush administration; Republicans had a very lucrative turn questioning the motives and character of Democrats in the Obama administration, and now everybody but the most partisan loyalists can be found expressing grave doubts about the motives character of many of those serving in the Trump administration.
And historically speaking, many of these negative judgments have been unfair. Most staffers in any administration serve out of a sense of public duty with real respect for the offices which they hold, and to impugn their motives at a time in their lives when they are trying to do good is churlish, particularly when there is no evidence of malfeasance.
But this time it feels different. Be it known or suspected acts of misconduct in office or the very public and unatoned-for personal failings of senior officials, the things we already know about less than nine months into the Trump administration should give us grave concern about the calibre of leadership in Washington, regardless of whether or not we agree with the general thrust of policy.
A few weeks ago, the masterful Peggy Noonan (speechwriter to President Ronald Reagan and a personal hero of mine) wrote a particularly moving column for the Wall Street Journal. In it, she conjured a moment of pure escapist fantasy, an alternate reality where all of the dreadful things we know to be true about people in the Trump administration – from the president on downwards – turned out to be nothing more than silly misunderstandings.
I saw this: The exhausted woman on the shelter cot was surrounded by stressed children when Melania came over, bent down and asked, “How are you doing?” The woman said “Well—hurricane.” She realized who she was talking to and got flustered. “Those are nice shoes,” she said. They were flat ankle-boots, the kind you wear on the street or the park, only of the finest leather. “Thank you,” said Melania. She saw the woman’s soggy sneakers. “What size do you wear?” she asked, “Oh, 9,” said the woman. “They got bigger with the kids.”
Melania took off her boots and put them on the woman’s feet. She did this in a way that was turned away from the press, so they wouldn’t see. The woman’s daughter said, “Mommy, they’re nice.” Melania took from her bag a pair of white sneakers, put them on, and said, “Oh good, these are so comfortable.” They talked some more and Melania left and the mother looked to her kids and said, softly, “These are the first lady’s shoes.”
[..] This happened just before the Mnuchin story got cleared up. The Treasury secretary had not asked for a government plane to take him on his honeymoon. His request got all bollixed up in transmission, but there was a paper trail. It turned out he was waiting at the airport with his new wife when he saw a guy in Army fatigues comforting a young woman in a white and yellow dress. She was crying. Mr. Mnuchin sent over an aide to find out what’s wrong.
The guy in fatigues had literally just flown in from Kabul. He and the woman had just married, in a chapel down the street. They’d been bumped from their honeymoon flight to Bermuda. Mr. Mnuchin said: “Give them my plane. Louise—we’re flying commercial.” They booked seats on the next flight to France and went to duty free, where they bought the best champagne and placed it in her Hermès bag. They wrote a note: “Every soldier on leave deserves a honeymoon, every bride deserves champagne.” The couple discovered the bag on the plush leather seat just as the pilot was saying: “Please be seated and buckle up, we’ve got special clearance.”
The column continued in the same hopeful vein – Trump was shown to be unexpectedly humble and empathetic beneath his braggadocious facade, and at one point Hillary Clinton’s post-election book “What Happened” turned out not to be a self-indulgent, self-exculpatory exercise in blame-shifting but rather a sincere and thoughtful atonement for the collective sins of the American political establishment.
But of course, none of these positive, hopeful things actually happened. In all cases, the facts as first reported by the media turned out to be the depressing truth. Noonan said of her reverie:
It made me feel proud, like there’s hope for our political class.
That is what I saw this week.
I should note—this part is true—that I saw much of it while anesthetized for a minor surgical procedure. For an hour afterward, even knowing it was either a fantasy or a dream, I felt so . . . hopeful. Cheerful. Proud. I give it to you.
It is impossible to read Peggy Noonan’s column without aching for a time when public service was a calling reserved for people of character and principle, even if that time exists only in our imaginations, false memories or old episodes of The West Wing.
This is not to say that the Obama administration represented some high watermark of moral behaviour in office. Former Attorney General Eric Holder was less than truthful more than once in his testimony to Congress, while the IRS under senior executive Lois Lerner was found to be singling out conservative organisations for additional tax scrutiny and harassment. But even adjusting for anti-conservative bias in the media, the Obama administration comported itself with considerably more dignity than has thus far been shown by the constantly rotating cast of Trump officials. And it would take a significant change of trajectory, bordering on the miraculous, for this assessment to change.
Is it really possible that in four or eight years’ time we will look back on the people who serve in the present administration, who now represent the federal government to its citizens and the United States of America to the world, and think of them as sincere, hardworking and well-intentioned (if sometimes flawed and mistaken) public servants?
Is Rex Tillerson – a man who showed little interest in foreign policy beyond its applicability to the oil industry prior to his nomination as Secretary of State – presently losing sleep at night trying to implement a foreign policy vision that he sincerely believes will make America and the world safer and more prosperous, as John Kerry did? Are Trump’s other cabinet secretaries maintaining the dignity of their offices and the commitment to fiscal rectitude which is supposed to be a fundamental Republican selling point, or are they all behaving like former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and current Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, abusing their offices and the public trust by showering themselves with unnecessary perks on the public dime?
And even if Trump apologists, knowing the administration to be deficient in these areas, are willing to sacrifice these qualities for the greater good of bringing down an establishment which ironically seems to be strangely ascendant within the current White House, are the benefits of this governmental shock therapy really worth the side-effects of employing such a motley group of charlatans and opportunists to follow in the footsteps of better men and women?
Watching “The Final Year” at the Odeon Leicester Square today, I could certainly understand how people might feel sceptical or even angry about some of John Kerry’s priorities as Secretary of State and those of his former boss, or be rubbed up the wrong way by the opinionated Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power. Theirs is a specific worldview with which not everybody agrees. But it is also evident that they are patriots one and all, serving the country that they love to the best of their abilities and in line with the values which they believe were twice vindicated by the election of Barack Obama as president. Based on what we know, it would certainly be very difficult to accuse any of these Obama administration alumni of being self-serving, superficial or corrupt in their duties.
I hope that when the time comes to look back on the current presidency, we will be able to say the same of all those who presently serve in the Trump administration.
I sincerely hope so, but I am not optimistic.
The Final Year will be released in cinemas in the US & UK in January 2018.
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